mundane adventures in running
In the shop running bags generally feel fine. You can tell whether they fit broadly, maybe identify obvious patches where they might rub, get some kind of an idea of how well they’ll last over filled with stuff. But it’s only by using them for a while that you really get an idea of whether they’re any good. First because it’s only after a few longish runs that you start to work out where they really hurt, which bits of skin they leave red raw on a 20k run on a hot day. Second because it’s only a really dreadful bag which would disintegrate after a couple of runs. Even a pretty dreadful bag will last a month before signs of wear.
I’m a fairly busy man. I run my own company, which is more than full time work when we’re busy, but part-time when not. Recently i’ve been flat out. I have a wife who works incredibly hard (she’s currently doing a part-time job with a full-time overtime schedule, finishing a phd and halfway through an MA). We also have two children, both at school but both totally dependent. It can be hard to find time for running*.
The only way I’ve worked out how to get the hours in without feeling guilty for neglecting my job, my wife or my children is to run to commute. I swap out bus journeys or leisurely cycle rides for snatched 5k, 8k, 15k runs. It generally works. London public transport is great, but even when it’s faster than running, it’s not that much faster. For example, the bus from my house to my office takes 30 minutes on a good day, door to door. It’s a circuitous route, going through a couple of estates, it’s often a 5 minute wait at the bus stop, it occasionally gets stuck in traffic. Given that it’s only 5.5km (and that’s if i take the scenic route through the park) running is a no brainer.
I used to cycle as my commute (and still do sometimes), and that was a revelation. For many people, fitness is something which happens in allocated time slot, an allocated place, and is something which is a goal in itself. This means it’s always something you need to make time for, to think about and motivate yourself to do. By using running (or cycling) as a way to get to the places you need to go, it stops being the thing you have to motivate yourself to do. When the alternative to running is to sit on a slow and crowded bus, and to pay for the privilege, motivational problems slip away. And when you’re running for a reason, running to get somewhere, any guilt you might feel at neglecting other parts of your life (about dicking about when you’re meant to be working/ looking after children/ tidying the house) slips away.
Running for your commute is not without its problems, and problems (in this instance) beget stuff. First come cleanliness and presentation. My work involves meeting clients and the public. I need to make a reasonable impression; it’s important that I don’t look and smell like a freak. I have a Better Gym chain swim membership, which means I can get a shower in fifty or so sports centres round London. This helps dramatically with the smell, but means I need to take shower gel, moisturiser and sometimes shave stuff with me**. Next comes clothes. I can’t wear lightweight hiking trousers and moreno t shirts to meetings. I have standards. Normal, not especially lightweight clothes, like jeans and DM shoes get packed into plastic bags and into my running rucksack. Then there’re the tools of work. I need my laptop, a diary, glasses, a notepad. Oftentimes I need a camera as well. If I’m expecting significant down time during a day, I’ll have a work related book to read as well. Then there’s the prospect of a run home. On days when I plan to run twice, I need another set of running gear***. On hot days I’ll have a steel canteen full of water, because I hate myself for buying bottled water. Oh, and not to forget, after about a month of use a running bag starts to look like it’s had a fight with a tramp, so then I need to carry another, more presentable bag to put all my stuff in if I’m going to meetings/ trying to be a normal member of society.
This is a lot of crap. A huge amount of crap. Sure I can cut down, and I do. I wear Xero sandals to meetings when I can get away with it, Vivos when I can’t. I pack a compressible down jacket in the winter. I’ve gotten used to always being slightly to cold in Winter. My laptop is the smallest lightest usable one I can find, and it really is a sacrifice to force myself to use an 11” screen. It’s still a lot of crap. This means that my running bag becomes the most important piece of running equipment I use. Without a doubt. I can run in pretty much any clothes, pretty much any shoes****, but without the right bag I’m screwed.
I actually can’t run with the wrong bag. Common problems are that they jiggle about, that they don’t keep your stuff in place, that they ruin your posture and make you run funny, that they’re not predictable and fall apart at the wrong time, that they don’t have the right padding and you end up with your laptop digging a hole into your back, that they’re not big enough, that they’re too big, that they’re not waterproof and everything gets covered in rain on a cold day and sweat on a hot one. And the chafing. I used a Low Alpine bag which would rub my lower back raw if there was any moisture at all. Even the best bags I’ve used invariable have some sore spots. It’s not just uncomfortable to run with the wrong bag, sometimes it’s impossible
Compounding these problems is the titanium plate on my clavicle. it sticks out a bit, and can be a real pain point with rucksacks. I need one which has enough padding to not put too much pressure on my shoulder blades.
So a good rucksack should:
Also, as a rucksack becomes effectively like an item of clothing, something you wear, and as sportswear stinks when you use it repeatedly, the ideal bag should:
Last week I retired my favourite bag so far. it was an Inov-8 Race pac 16. It was great. It fit, was comfortable, chafed a little, but not to the point of bleeding. I’ve had just short of three years’ use from it, it’s probably done well over 1000km, maybe as much as 3000km, so it was durable. It washed quite well, even though I think washing hastened its demise. It was never waterproof, so i’d always have to use it with a dry pack inside (these are good). I’d buy another one if they still made them, sadly the stupid pressure on companies to constantly innovate and change their product range means this bag is no more. It was a bag which proved too beautiful for this Earth.
While it was my favourite bag so far, there was room for improvement. It was always very clear that it was designed for a different type of running, not for commuting. The emergency whistle was never useful running up the Walworth Road. It was always frustrating that there was no obvious place you could put your keys without them jangling. It was always frustrating that the pocket for your phone wasn’t waterproof (even slightly). Finally, it looked horrible, so there was no way you’d want to walk around with it post run.
That said, I’d probably buy another one, if they were still available. Oh the irony: I’m only in a position to write a review of this item when it’s long discontinued and unavailable.
Commuting has caught on in the world of cycling. There are a billion cycle products aimed specifically at commuters, from bikes to meeting friendly panniers, to waterproofs designed to go over suit trousers. In the world of running there is nothing: I literally cannot find one running product which is marketed as specifically for commuting. This is crazy. Surely I am not the only person who runs to work (I know I’m not). It feels like a untapped market for apparel companies: instead of letting people buy products which let them chase their aspiration of being like Mo Farah, give them products which help them with the kind of running they do. Not everyone needs a ‘race pack’ some people just need a ‘commute pack’.
I am not the person to do a Kickstarter, to design the perfect commuting running pack and then get crowd backing to get it produced. But I wish someone else would.
Finally, if you’re interested, I bought the OMM 20l as a replacement. If i like it or hate it i will probably write about it in the future. If it’s ‘meh’ I probably won’t. Also, if you read this hoping for sensible advice on backpacks, Run and Become have this good guide to different brands, fit and whatnot.
*and for pissing about writing blogposts no one will ever read 🙂
** If I shave before I run my skin goes bonkers and really angry and allergic
*** I am a stinking man. I actually can’t wear the same running gear twice in a row
**** No shoes even, which also helps with weight reduction. If I could always go barefoot in London without looking like a freak, I would… even to meetings, on the tube, or having a pint in the pub. But I’m too vain, I can’t quite get my head round deliberately marginalising myself to that extent.
***** I say ‘it’ but I think of her as ‘she’. Given my close relationship with this bag, a gendered pronoun feels more appropriate than a simple ‘it’